The desert is funny, you know, the way it is summer in late winter, not desert summer thank goodness but ordinary summer like in normal places, so we can leave the doors open and feel the warm air in the early dark and really what can be better than warm nights, completely delightful, not hot nights of course, not like summer nights here which are dreadful, awful, so sometimes even on these silky nights in late winter it is a bit troubling really, thinking of the summer nights when it can be 111 degrees at 10:30 at night and so then it can be hard to truly relish these early warm nights because I just want it to be cool as long as it can be knowing what is coming and staying and living here those six brutal months of summer.
[This is a bit of the piece I wrote for my class. I’m imitating Gertrude Stein from a selection of her letters in The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thorton Wilder.]
Ever since the friend who agreed to watch my cat Trair when I was away never went to feed her in my Oakland flat in 1987, I have set out a bowl or two of extra water for my cats when I’m out of town, my “talisman” water. I’ve kept this ritual up over the years since my last two cats died. I have a big round mug now, red crayon colors, wild yellow flowers, black rim. It lives beside the fridge. This morning I replenish the water. I rinse the mug, fill it close to the brim. I wipe the water from the bottom, the sides, and lower it with care to the floor in its exact spot, silent prayers for protection. Crouching beside the fresh talisman water, I catch myself in the mirror on the wall above it. I am struck by something in my face I haven’t seen of late. “Oh, there you are,” I say to my mirror self. “You’re coming back.” And with this pleased glimpse, this relief and welcome, comes grief, too, almost as if I had abandoned myself, and loneliness, as if I’d been alone all this time since I’d become sick, as if I’d left myself for lost.
I cry brief tears in bed this morning, grateful for our home, the people who love me, my birds, trees, crickets, daddy long legs, squirrels, yard, the exquisite beauty and safe haven here. And I cry because I have lost touch with this, my deep gratitude, since I’ve been sick. It seems sometimes as though I am always recovering, or trying to, from grief or trauma, from illness or too much work. As though I am always trying to come back to myself in some way, to my life, to my dreams of writing and thriving. Being sick seems a little different, but in truth each kind of becoming well, or returning, comes in its own time. We can try to help the process, but we can’t orchestrate an end date. Still, I wonder how many people feel the way I do, so often trying to come home to myself. Do other people have some steady, solid, open-hearted, even-keeled way of moving through their lives? This morning, I suspect they do.
Late in the mid-January week when I begin to make a kind of comeback, return to myself a bit, I get sick. I think it is minor, but it gets worse every day for five days. My fever lasts for two weeks. When it begins, I have a hunch about why it happened (aside from the woman sitting in front of me on the bus who didn’t cover her mouth when she coughed). I think maybe it’s because I started to come back. I scheduled my Valentine’s Day retreat that was prompted by a sleeping dream in early December. I wrote two blog posts, the first ones since November. I was engaged, moving forward, wobbly baby steps. It happened to me once during a weeklong writing workshop. I got sick after days of writing hard stuff, making a start with difficult material. I don’t claim to completely understand it. It’s as if the psyche and the soul are freed up when we make even small forward movement through things that have been piling up or dammed. Then because the blockages disperse on those levels, they crumble in the body, too, and the body washes away the remnants, piles of tree limbs tumbling free. Weeks later, when I am all but well, I wake to this thought again, wry half-grin on my face. (I have a tendency to be wry.) It comes to me then that getting sick and feeling miserable doesn’t strike me as the greatest reward for a breakthrough.
6:10pm. I am resisting prepping for my class that begins tomorrow. I just don’t want to do the work. But of course I have to. It needs to be done by 8am tomorrow, and it will be. I just don’t want to do it now. So, I wash the dishes, rinse out the sink, wipe down the counters. I decide to let myself read a little first. I feel like dessert, I think. I find a forgotten Lara bar, Pecan Pie, in the door of the fridge. I take it back to bed with me, spearmint tea steeping on the table beside me. I eat the bar all at once, sucking the sweetness into me, this unexpected gift to myself tenderizing me. Halfway through the bar, I begin to cry. I’ve always thought I would do whatever it took to keep my loved ones safe, well, happy. Now I am coming to understand it can’t be quite so limitless, so no holds barred, that I may need to save something of myself for me. So I cry, and I chew, the sweetness of dates, the earthiness of pecans. I grieve for this inner ideal I’ve carried with me for decades, of what it means to love someone fully, a delusion, I think now, that would have left me husk only. Part of me is glad to think I may find my way to giving much but not everything, not viscera, not bone. To think I may have something left when things are done. Even so, the taste of dates and pecans still in my mouth, even sensing that this idea of giving everything was cloudy seeing, I grieve to feel the dream of it crumbling inside me, to feel it slip away.
The anthology with my short story, “Between My Ribs,” was released on November 1st. It felt like an auspicious date, part of the Halloween, pagan new year, día de los muertos set of days when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest. A magic time, a good day for the book to be born. As I write, I see another layer. In my short story, the veil is thin, too. I grin, loving this connection I am drawing now. But I don’t know why I didn’t announce it, didn’t tell you all about it right away. I think maybe it’s a little bit because I am not one for tooting my own horn, as they say. It makes me self-conscious. And maybe, too, because there is a part of me who feels silly to be promoting the release of my first short story. But I bought extra copies, and one of my favorite people in our writing group at the library bought one. I got to inscribe it for her, and it was such a delight. My first signing. And I am bringing copies to the writing retreat, even if it may be a little goofy, even though it is not my first book but my first story. I am bringing them because I love the idea of them sitting there. It makes me almost teary with a kind of tender gratitude. And now, finally, here I am telling you about it, my dear readers. I wanted to tell you right away, but I didn’t. I hope you’ll forgive me.